What John Callahan has found out in the past few weeks is that a lot of people are wrestling with ghosts. In particular, a lot of people in literary circles are wrestling with the beautiful fire of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man."
These days, they aren't happy with the book's successor.
In 1952, Ellison put his finger on the dilemma of race and found the perfect metaphor for the black man's position in America.
But despite four decades of drafts, rewrites, sketches, scenes and fragments, Ellison never produced a second novel. It fell to Callahan, a literature professor at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon and a longtime friend of Ellison, to finish what the writer left when he died in 1994. The result, "Juneteenth," appeared this June 19.
Ellison himself was certainly haunted by the ghost of "Invisible Man." And so is Callahan.
The literary scholar, who speaks at the Library of Congress tonight and Wednesday night, has found that every review of "Juneteenth" has measured his effort to blend Ellison's brilliant passages into a good novel against the "Invisible" standard. Some of the nation's leading literary lions think Callahan has succeeded against that standard, has done a great service to his friend.
But others think not, and their tone ranges from disappointment to petulance.
"They might feel jilted," says Callahan. He is leaning into a table in Random House's midtown skyscraper. The 58-year-old professor argues as if he is in court. People may not want to accept it, he says, but "this is the narrative at the heart of his unfinished saga."
A Difficult Birth
It was a job for a literary detective, really.
Someone had to trail Ellison's imagination through the mountains of papers he left behind. Callahan made his way through 2,000 pages of scenes and chapters that Ellison painstakingly wrote and rewrote over 40 years. After more than three years, he emerged with a 368-page novel. Set in the 1950s, it is the tale of Adam Sunraider, a U.S. senator of mixed race. After he is shot, Sunraider summons a black preacher, the Rev. Alonzo Hickman, to his hospital bedside. What follows is largely an interior story, told by two men who are wrestling with a complicated past.
And now, on a warm night in New York, Callahan is facing an audience of nearly 1,000 people at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York's Chelsea district. He is a tall, wiry man with a thick crop of wheat-gray hair. Clearly comfortable on the podium, Callahan reads briefly but then steps back to let the three marquee personalities behind him give life to Ellison's words. Novelists Toni Morrison and Peter Matthiessen and critic Albert Murray take their turns. They find clarity and power in Ellison's sentences. They find the humor. They find the tragedy.
Morrison, a Nobel laureate, reads a passage about a kidnapping and the audience hardly breathes. "Ralph Ellison's generosity, humor and nimble language are, of course, on display in 'Juneteenth,' but it is his vigorous intellect that rules the novel," she says.
"A majestic narrative concept," she calls it.
When the reading is over, the words of Ellison are lovingly applauded.
There has been no second-guessing here, no shouted questions, no barbs. Callahan watches the New Yorkers file out into the streets Ellison knew so well and enjoys the success. But he has accepted plenty of second-guessing in other forums and knows that it would have been impossible to create Ralph Ellison's second novel and escape criticism. He argues, taking the high road, that all discussions have value.
"I'm especially delighted that Ralph's work is out. Something quite marvelous is happening, and it is a test of what democratic culture is all about. Some of the literati say no, this book isn't what we hoped it would be. So far the folks in the provinces are much more responsive," he says.
The New York Times took an early shot, with Michiko Kakutani saying that although Hickman is a strong character, overall the book "feels disappointingly provisional and incomplete." Jonathan Yardley, writing in The Washington Post, said "Invisible Man" was one of a kind and that "the book that comes before us now must be judged by standards as exacting as those Ellison himself quite obviously held it up to, and by those standards it can only be called a failure."
In Black Issues Book Review, Shaun Neblett wrote, "At times the sequences assemble as a composition of a string quartet, but at other times, they start to mingle like unseasoned flat steel drum beats, set again only to flare up as an intoxicated rhythm of a Jimi Hendrix guitar riff. Callahan's struggle to compose 'Juneteenth' into a single and complete piece of art is ultimately unsuccessful."
The book has also been chewed over by a camp that believes posthumous works are invalid. Stanley Crouch, the critic, has said the work should have been left alone.
Outside the Northeast corridor, there have been cautious embraces. Margaria Fichtner, book editor of the Miami Herald, said, "Although Callahan's editing leaves details of the plot annoyingly unclear or unresolved, wonderful scenes and set pieces--some so tone-perfect and vividly imaged they could be performed--appear throughout."
West of the Mississippi, praise has been higher. "This painstakingly assembled edition keeps his genius visible," said Geoffrey A. Campbell in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In Denver, Chip Rhodes in the Rocky Mountain News described the book as "demanding, dense and undeniably brilliant."
Two Men, One Book
Ellison stands as one of the exemplary writers of the century, and yet he published only one novel during his lifetime. A native of Oklahoma, Ellison studied music at Tuskegee Institute and joined the Federal Writers Project, one of the government's Depression-era employment programs. He moved to New York in the late 1930s. Ellison started writing "Invisible Man"--the story of a nameless black man coming of age and wrestling with who he is--after a stint in the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II. After seven years of writing, the book was published in 1952, winning the National Book Award, never going out of print, and now landing on almost every list of best books of the century.
Callahan, who has taught the book since the late 1960s, understands its status as a masterpiece but says he is not trapped by it. " 'Invisible Man' is still a book that makes me uneasy," he says. "Those last sentences: 'Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?' "
Ellison lectured and wrote essays in the years that followed his first novel. He worked on a follow-up novel. He even read parts of it in public. He talked about it with friends. In 1967 the manuscript, then 360 pages, was destroyed when his country home in the Berkshires burned. He started over.
Taking so long on the novel worried Ellison.
He described his state of mind in a letter he wrote to writer Terry McMillan after she sent him an early version of "Mama." In his reply, he encouraged her to keep writing, but told her he was always getting manuscripts and had stopped reading them: "This is due, in part, to disruptions attending the publication of a book of essays, and pressures from my own publishers to complete a novel that is so long overdue that I have become something of a joke, if not a scandal."
So if Ellison had the burden of living up to everyone's expectations, what of Callahan and "Juneteenth"?
"On the one hand, people came to this with certain expectations as if after 40 years, . . . Ralph would be Moses and come down from the mountain. This is not that kind of book, this is a book where readers have to dig out of their own consciousness," Callahan says.
He says he hasn't been derailed by the criticism of the new book. In fact, working largely out of the cross hairs of the New York literati for most of his career, he appears to be enjoying this moment on the hot seat.
He was born in Meriden, Conn., but grew up in New Haven, Irish and Catholic. He went straight from high school to the Jesuits who had educated his father at Holy Cross College.
In May 1960, he spent one sophomore evening, then night, then the next day reading "Invisible Man." He never forgot the lines "I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love."
"Invisible Man" has never been far from his consciousness since. Well known among literary scholars, Callahan has been a student, theorist and teacher of African American literature since those student days at Holy Cross.
In 1977 he wrote an essay--"The Historical Frequencies of Ralph Waldo Ellison"--and impulsively sent it to Ellison. Following up on some of the points of the essay, Ellison sent a book back with the inscription "For John Callahan, and to that vision of fraternity expressed by Frederick D [Douglass] and Danny O'C [O'Connell, an Irish patriot]." He was invited to visit the author the next time he was in New York, and did a few months later. They developed a literary friendship and a personal synergy.
For 30 years Callahan has lived in Oregon, and now holds a humanities chair at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. He has written a book on F. Scott Fitzgerald and another on the technique of "call and response" in black fiction.
When Ellison died in 1994, his widow, Fanny, asked Callahan to help with the manuscripts and the papers. The material filled 10 boxes. The first products of Callahan's excavations were "The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison" and "Flying Home and Other Stories." And then Fanny Ellison asked if anything had a beginning, middle and end, if anything in the papers had the shape of that long-awaited novel. "Juneteenth" is the result of that question.
Ellison certainly didn't leave a road map. "The challenge was how to bring it all together," Callahan says. "He left hints and counter-hints. He revised both the originals and the carbons. I would say, 'My God, he worked different revisions.' What seemed to give him the most difficulty were the subplots."
The title came from a moving lecture Callahan heard Ellison give in 1973 about the Juneteenth ritual commemorating the day when slaves in Texas belatedly found out about the Emancipation Proclamation, a year after it was signed. A Juneteenth party figures prominently in the book.
To show how complicated Ellison's thinking was about the unfinished work, Callahan is compiling a scholar's edition of Ellison's notes and drafts. Readers will see that the pieces he used for the book, as well as some of what was left out, are gems.
"I came to believe and discern this narrative, 'Juneteenth,' was the part he returned to most often and came back to with the greatest care. This is Ellison at his best," he says. "It was a question of discerning sequence, sorting out the occasional differences between his pagination and his notes of intention. . . . There are some loose ends in the book. And where Ellison didn't work it out, I thought it was better to let it be suggested."
The anticipation around "Juneteenth" was enormous. That was inevitable not only because of the power of the first novel but also because Ellison was an intellectual who influenced a generation of thinkers, writers and activists. People had soaked up his opinions on everything from literature to the blues to politics to integration to wine to American history. He defined himself as an American integrationist, who believed the strength of America was in what everyone brought to the table.
It is interesting to read between the lines, to see how passages in the novel were shaped by events that happened during its conception: Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Alan Shepard, John Glenn, the Black Arts Movement, the Black Panthers, the Temptations, the Beatles, black mayors, crack and AIDS. Callahan isn't sure how such things influenced Ellison's attitudes, but, as always, the writer left hints.
"Ralph was asked to give a talk about King after the assassination. He read a section of the Lincoln Memorial scene that is in the book. His notes suggest him working through matters by association with contemporary events. But he continued to want to set the stories in the 1950s. He has some notes about the use of the word 'Negro' [instead of "black" or "African American"]. He wrote he was under pressure--'should I use that word?' "
Ellison had a very specific view of America as a cultural crossroads, with black America at its center. And those themes provide a bridge between the two novels no matter how dissimilar. "The evasion of identity and its tragic consequences. How do we deal with our tendencies of consciousness and unconsciousness?" is how Callahan puts it.
In "Juneteenth," that kind of debate is apparent in almost every scene. The story slowly unfolds at the bedside of Sunraider, a bigoted New Englander who has been shot from the Senate gallery by a black man. As he lies on the Senate floor, he hears the voice of someone he knew in childhood, the black preacher who raised him. He sends for the old man and they begin to relive their paths, each wrestling with questions of motivation. The senator hasn't forgotten he didn't get ice cream as a reward for a childhood accomplishment. Hickman is wondering: What happened to you, boy?
"Ralph flips [the racist usage] around, in this time frame, to have the black preacher saying to the white senator, 'Boy, how could you have run away?' " says Callahan.
Ambiguities in Ellison's story force the reader to think about motivations from each character, perhaps the test of good literature.
"It has been a mistake on the part of some reviewers, who assume that the older Bliss [Sunraider] is all wrong and Hickman is all right. Hickman has some things to answer, too." Yet even if the critics don't like the characters and the plot, the words, says Callahan, are a case study of grace and blues.
"One of the things that will make it last is its language," he says. "I did the best with what he left."
John Callahan, the literary executor for Ralph Ellison, will discuss "Invisible Man" at 6:30 tonight in the Montpelier Room of the Madison Building of the Library of Congress. Tomorrow night at 6:30 in the same building's Mumford Room, he will discuss Ellison's posthumous book, "Juneteenth." Admission is free.
CAPTION: "Juneteenth" editor John Callahan: "Some of the literati say no, this book isn't what we hoped it would be. . . . Folks in the provinces are much more responsive."
CAPTION: "On the one hand, people came to this with certain expectations as if after 40 years . . . Ralph would be Moses and come down from the mountain. This is not that kind of book," says "Juneteenth" editor John Callahan. Above, Ellison in 1982 with a copy of "Invisible Man."